Education, Society

Olivia’s Cambridge Diary

Spanish for beginners


In sociolinguistics, we talk about learning languages as accumulating “linguistic capital” – investments with stable returns both personally and professionally. Today, it is estimated there are 10 million Chinese speakers of English, just 1% of the population. But interest in other languages is creeping up. The government’s National Coordinator for Spanish, Lu Jingsheng, has said that demand for Spanish language education has “increased 30-fold” over the last 15 years.

To complement my Master’s degree in Second Language Research, it made sense to start learning another language. Deliberating between Arabic, Hebrew and Spanish, I chose the latter due to its similarity with French (which I studied for my undergraduate degree) as well as having an on-hand language partner – my Guatemalan boyfriend whom I met when working in Shanghai.

One of the highlights of Spanish classes on Thursday afternoons is getting to know my classmates. Most of the class are monolingual Brits opting for Spanish as one of the least challenging new languages to learn. But 20% is Chinese and two of the group have become particular friends.

Liping, a Natural Sciences undergraduate at Magdalene College, and I found ourselves drifting further and further towards the back of class as the level of Spanish increased exponentially. Unfortunately our degrees don’t afford us the luxury of time to practice our Spanish much.

Originally from a town between Guangzhou and Macau, Liping went to an international school before coming to Cambridge alongside an impressive half a dozen others from the same year group. After the last lesson of term, we treated ourselves to a trip to Aromi, a bustling Italian restaurant. Sheltering within our puffy coats against the bitter cold, Liping ordered an ice cream. In response to my horror, she responded plainly: “Well, if we eat some ice cream then our body temperature will be reduced, which will make the temperature outside feel less cold”.

Liping tells me she’s struggling with the intonation, pronunciation and the “bounciness” of Spanish, and that the grammar is rapidly becoming too complex. Regardless, she’s motivated to continue through next term as she wants to become proficient enough to travel in Latin America. She has a Chinese friend who has travelled solo around Peru and wants to do the same once she graduates. I agreed it wasn’t a bad idea.

Joseph, on the other hand, is a first year PhD student in Land Economy. Our relationship outside of Spanish class is different, including participating in academically rigorous Chinese-language seminars about migration studies.

When I asked Joseph why he had decided to learn Spanish in the first place, he gave me three different reasons. The first was to chit-chat with his salsa dancing partners (salsa dancing is his hobby). The second was to order food from the Judge Business School (apparently most of the canteen staff there are Spanish speakers). The third was to be able to ask academic-related questions to his supervisor. Above all, however: “I just want to enjoy the process of learning this beautiful language: the enthusiastic rhythm, the vivid expression and the relatively straightforward connotation.”

As an intermediate French speaker, Joseph also finds Spanish conjugations not too alienating. Several friends of his have also been studying Spanish for some time, with most having made significant progress, which Joseph finds inspiring.

Nevertheless, the difficulties of Spanish haven’t gone unnoticed, Joseph points out. “The pronunciation is rather distinctive from any other languages that I speak, particularly for certain unique sounds like the ‘rr’. Also, I did not manage to use it a lot as most of my Spanish-friends are too fluent in English,” he said. “If ever I try to speak stumbling Spanish to them, they change the conversation immediately into English,” he complained.

UK-born Olivia has lived and worked in China and is studying for an MPhil in Second Language Research at Cambridge University.

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